Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mexican Hot Chocolate Pudding

There are certain things that are best left to professionals. Asbestos removal, for example. Or complex surgery. Heck, even simple surgery. But there are other projects that just about anyone can pull off, and it boggles the mind that someone ever managed to convince us otherwise. Like making pudding from scratch.

Listen to me, people: do not pay for pudding mix. Ever. Pudding is one of the easiest things you can make. I guarantee that 4 out of 5 of you have all the necessary ingredients in your pantry right now. You take some milk, add some sugar to sweeten, a bit cocoa or vanilla to flavor, and a few spoonfuls of cornstarch to thicken. That's it. There are variations using eggs as well, which are also delicious, but the pudding they make is a bit heavier (and you have the added requirement of constant stirring, to make sure the eggs thicken evenly instead of clumping into unappetizing little curds). A basic pudding like this one is delicious, cheap, and dead simple. It takes less than 10 minutes start to finish.

This particular version is spiked with a dash of cinnamon for a Mexican flavor, which makes for a nice alternative to the standard straight-up chocolate. It's sweet-but-not-overly, and is relatively light and healthy. This version makes enough for 4, in theory, though the two of us have been known to polish it off in a day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Pudding

adapted from Gourmet, February 2009
serves 4 (or fewer)

1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp cinnamon
large pinch salt
2 cups almond milk (you can substitute regular milk, or milk alternative, with equivalent results)
1 1/2 Tbsp butter or margarine, cut into a few bits
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Place brown sugar, cocoa powder, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt in a pot, and whisk to combine. Pour in the milk, and whisk again. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking occasionally, and then boil for one full minute, whisking constantly (it will thicken noticeably). Remove from heat, add butter and vanilla, and stir to combine. Pour into serving bowls (or bowl, depending on how you'd like to serve it). Chill until cool, or else eat it right away.


There's a certain magical romance to high school friendships. You spend all of your time together, unpacking the events of your day and planning for the future. You have loud conversations while waiting on lines and buses, wanting to be overheard because you're sure that everyone else must be entranced by your wit and vitality (only later do you realize how wrong you are). And you become part of another family.

A huge amount of my personal development happened with my high school best friend. And, as a lovely bonus, a huge amount of my culinary development happened with my best friend's mother. Let me take you back: the early 1990s. While American food was a far cry from the previous decade, it was still a different landscape. Health food stores, without fail, were located in basements. Italian food meant red sauce. Ethnic food meant canned water chestnuts. Heck, we were still learning about cilantro.

In the midst of all this was my friend Amy's mom. She restocked her pantry with bulk order deliveries from Walnut Acres, because local stores didn't stock her California-developed tastes. Brunch featured a french toast bread pudding with fresh blueberries, maple syrup, and cubes of cream cheese that still haunts my dreams. Taco Night at my house meant an Old El Paso MSG-based spiced mix. At Amy's, it meant home-made Navajo fry bread. But best of all was the spanikopita.

I'd had spanikopita (also spelled spanakopita) before, but only in diners. These versions featured frozen spinach and musty dried dill, and were seldom homemade. The fresh version, straight from the oven, was a revelation. I ate so much that I'm surprised they invited me back.

High school was forever ago, and I've made this recipe dozens of times since. It was never written down, and I can't remember what I've changed along the way. But authentic or not, this version is wonderful. The fresh spinach is layered with tangy feta and creamy cottage cheese, with some onion or scallions for savor. But it's the fresh dill which makes this truly lovely. It's amazing fresh from the oven, with the crisp phyllo dough contrasting with the creamy filling. But truth be told, I might like leftovers almost as much. I've made this for myself on my birthday. Many times. It's just that good.

inspired by high school
serves 6-8

2 cups cottage cheese
3/4 pound feta cheese
1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped (a scant 1/4 cup)
1/4 red or yellow onion, or 1/2 bunch scallion, finely chopped
salt and pepper
1 egg
1 large bunch spinach, washed, dried, and roughly chopped
2 Tbsp some sort of cracked-grain hot cereal (farina, cream of rice, etc.)
1/2 package phyllo dough, thawed
olive oil, as needed (~ 1/3 cup)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together the cottage and feta cheese, dill, and onion. Season to taste with salt and pepper (you want it somewhat strongly seasoned, since it'll be mixed with the spinach, but be careful as the feta will add a lot of salt). Mix in the egg. Add the spinach, by handfuls, until the mixture is somewhat well-distributed.

Grease a large casserole dish with olive oil. You can also use a sheet tray, if you prefer a thinner spanikopita, or whatever dish you so desire. Open the package of phyllo, making sure to keep any unused portion covered with a dishtowel so that it doesn't dry out. Lay down two sheets in the casserole dish, then drizzle with olive oil. Spread the oil out somewhat evenly over the sheet, using a pastry brush, wadded-up bit of waxed paper, or whatever you have. Repeat the process, until you have 8 sheets down. Lightly sprinkle the farina (or its equivalent) over the top sheet (this will absorb excess liquid given off by the spinach, and prevent it from sogging your bottom phyllo). Spread the spinach-cheese mixture over the top. Lay down another 8 sheets of phyllo on top, oiling between every two layers. Oil the top layer, and cut a few vents to allow the filling to bubble up. Bake until the top is lightly browned, and the filling is bubbling, ~45 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool 5 minutes, and serve.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Grilled Corn Dressing (and Dip)

Salad dressing isn't usually one of those things that cries out for innovation. While my salad vegetables vary a bit with the seasons (and shopping trips), the dressing remains pretty much the same. Oil, vinegar, shallot, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar. That's it. This formula allows room for variation: olive oil and red wine vinegar for an Italian meal, or walnut oil and sherry vinegar if you're feeling fancy. Sometimes there's a pinch of tarragon for excitement, or a few curls of orange or lemon zest when I've got citrus. Now and then garlic steps in for the shallot, or maple syrup for the sugar. But the standard dressing formula holds strong.

Except when it doesn't. Every once in a while, especially when there have been a lot of salads on the menu, the standard vinaigrette can feel a little tired, and I want to branch out. Our resident lactard rules out the buttermilk-based creamy dressings that call out to me. So instead, I turn to corn.

It sounds a bit strange at first, and I've even faced doubters in my own kitchen ("We're having salad topped with chowder?"). But this recipe wins hearts and minds. It's creamy without the cream, and has a smoky sweetness from the grill (and if you don't have the time or inclination to grill, you can fake it with smoked paprika and a pinch of sugar). It also makes a great dip for vegetables, and is absolutely heavenly poured over sliced avocados.

And for those of you wondering about the Wild America shots of prepared dishes in their natural backyard habitats? I don't really have a good answer. Our kitchen doesn't have much natural light, and is often pretty messy to boot. I figure I'll take advantage of the pretty before the rains set in.

Grilled Corn Dressing (and Dip)
inspired by my friend Sarah

makes about 1 1/2 cups dressing

2 ears corn
1 large shallot, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
pinch each smoked paprika and sugar (optional, see instructions)
1/2 - 3/4 cups olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Grill or boil the corn until done. Shuck any remaining husk, and cut the kernels off of the ears. This will yield ~1 cup kernels.

Place the corn kernels in a blender, along with the rice wine vinegar and shallot. If you boiled the corn, add a pinch each of the smoked paprika and the sugar (grilled corn will have enough smoky sweetness on its own). Add about half the oil and puree until somewhat smooth. Continue to add more oil, stopping when you have a pourable consistency. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pickled Broccoli Stems

I have trouble throwing things out. Condiments stay in the refrigerator until the next move, even those I am fairly certain I'll never taste again (yes, I'm talking about you, weird Russian chicory concentrate). There's a T-shirt in my closet marking the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (1995, for those of you who don't have the date committed to memory). And then there are the broccoli stems.

Broccoli is one of my favorite vegetables. The flowery tops sop up any sauce, from stir-fry to coconut curry. And if you roast it, the caramelized green-and-gold, vegetal-and-sweet end result is one of the best dishes you can imagine. But the stalks? Not so much. No little flowers to add textural interest and flavor, or meld into a larger dish. Just a whole lot of dense green.

For many years, I've dealt with my waste-o-phobia (and spend-money-o-phobia) by making my own soup stock. There's a bag in the freezer where I toss carrot tops, onion peels, tomato cores, and those last stalks of celery that go limp despite our best efforts. Whenever I need some vegetable broth, I dump the contents of the bag into my pre
ssure cooker, add salt and water, and lock the lid. But, unfortunately, I can't do that with broccoli stems.

Broccoli, like its cousins kale and cauliflower, is a member of the plant genus Brassica. This cabbagey, mustardy family (which, incidentally, also contains cabbages and mustards) is known for its high fiber, and large helping of cancer-fighting compounds. And, oh yeah, its sharp taste and smell. The compounds that give the Brassica family its health benefits also result in a distinctive flavor, one that gets stronger with extended cooking (as anyone who grew up in a home with boiled cabbage dishes can attest). This mustardy edge can be great on its own, but it's not something you can subtly layer into your vegetable broth.

Thankfully, I discovered something that can be done with broccoli stalks. Something delicious. Now instead of sadly tossing stalks on the compost pile, or letting them overpower a dish a dish with their dense crunch, I pickle them. And the pickles are lovely. Salt and vinegar tame some of the peppery edge of raw broccoli, and the garlic adds a great savory depth. They've become my favorite cocktail snack. I can't believe I used to throw them out.

Pickled Broccoli Stemsadapted from The New York Times, 3/3/09 makes about 1/2 cup
Broccoli is most easily peeled with a paring knife, as its irregular surface makes it difficult to use a standard peeler. Cut off any tough skin on the bottom end, and slide your paring knife under the tough peel. Press the peel between your thumb and the knife, and tug towards the top end. You should be able to peel the outer skin off in strips this way. Repeat until all of the tough peel is removed.

stems from 1 bunch of broccoli
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 large garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 1/2 Tbsp sherry vinegar, or 1 Tbsp of a sharper vinegar
2 Tbsp olive oil

Peel the broccoli stems, and slice them crosswise into coins about 1/4 inch thick. Place in a jar with the salt, cover, and shake to distribute. Refrigerate several hours, or overnight.

Drain off the accumulated liquid. Add the remaining ingredients, shake again to distribute. Refrigerate for several hours, or overnight, to allow flavors to permeate, shaking occasionally. Serve with toothpicks or small forks.
The oil may solidify, but will quickly liquify at room temperature. The green color will fade after a day or so, but they'll still be delicious.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Canned Plums In Syrup

I just can't stop looking at these canned plums. Or, apparently, telling people that they're pickled eggs (a joke whose humor seems lost on most of my audience). I'm no stranger to canning, as I've already mentioned. But I've never put whole fruits inside of jars before, an act that seems like it shouldn't work. You wouldn't throw whole plums in the freezer -- how can you cavalierly toss them inside a jar?

As it turns out, it's simply necessity that leads to this dramatic presentation. Most plums are clingstone, with the flesh firmly attached to the pit. There's no way you're going to end up with neat pitted halves, as you would with freestone peaches. The only option is to can them whole, and just eat around the pits. But even with this unromantic explanation, I still sit in wonder at the sight of whole fruit, bobbing in its enclosed syrupy habitat.

Canned plums are so simple that they barely warrant a recipe. So instead, here are a series of loose guidelines. Find a tree in your neighborhood before the season is over.

Canned Plums In Syrup

As many plums as you can handle
As much syrup as you need
As many jars as it takes
Optional: any flavorings you fancy to add excitement to the fruit (vanilla beans, rosemary sprigs, etc.)

Sterilize your jars, either in boiling water or a dishwasher. Wash the plums, and prick them a few times with a skewer. This allows the syrup to permeate, and prevents the skins from bursting (although if you have a particularly thin-skinned variety of plums, they might burst anyways, leading to a still-delicious-albeit-somewhat-less-pretty product). Place the plums in your canning jars, tamping them down to fit as many as possible. They'll shrink in the hot syrup, so really pack them in. Tuck any desired flavorings in amongst the fruit.

Prepare your syrup: I favor a medium syrup, of 2 parts water to 1 part sugar. Make as much as you'll need to fill your jars. Bring to a boil, and then pour over the plums, up to 1/2" of the rim.

Top jars with sterilized lids, screw the rings on finger-tight, and then process in a boiling water bath (20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts). Remove and cool, then check that the lids have sealed. The syrup will infuse the plums (and vice versa) as they sit. By winter, they'll be amazing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chewy Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies

At Thanksgiving about a decade ago, my friend's 3-year-old nephew was "helping" with the meal. After the dessert plates had been set out, he carefully began laying out a cookie on each plate. An elderly relative tried to halt him, gently explaining that not everyone wanted a cookie. This was mind-blowing information for a 3-year-old to incorporate. "Why don't they want a tookie?" he asked incredulously. "It's just a tookie. It's just sweet."

Even though I've got something of a grown-ups palate these days (i.e. I no longer dream about purchasing a can of frosting for a birthday meal), I feel the same way about these cookies. Some other desserts, sure. There are desserts for particular palates, or suited to particular meals or seasons. But these cookies are always perfect. Always. They've got a thin crisp outer covering which cracks in crags, letting you see the moistness inside. I can't think of the last time I baked cookies that weren't these.

Amazingly, this recipe is vegan, missing the eggs and butter which normally give cookies body and flavor. But you would never know. They're soft and chocolaty, deeply-flavored and studded with chips. If you know a vegan, or someone who has to avoid dairy, make them these cookies. And if you have friends who do indulge in dairy, they won't know the difference. I know, I know: many vegan and dairy-free recipes make similar claims, but leave you with cookies that crumble, don't spread, or feature a distracting soy or margarine flavor. I promise, these cookies just taste like great cookies. And who doesn't want a cookie?

Chewy Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from Isa Moskowitz,
The Post-Punk Kitchen
makes 4 dozen cookies

In order for you to have nice chewy cookies, you'll need to make sure these cookies don't cook beyond 10 minutes. They'll seem a bit under-done at first, but they'll continue to set outside of the oven. This recipe is easily halved if you don't want the full yield. But you know what's a better idea? Bake the full amount, then freeze any leftovers for a secret stash. We thaw ours in the microwave, but I've been known to gnaw still-frozen cookies.

4 tsp ground flax seeds (ground to a mealy powder in a spice grinder)
1/2 cup milk or soymilk
2 cups all purpose flour (or finely-milled whole wheat pastry flour)
3/4 cups cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup neutral oil (like canola)
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flax seeds and soymilk, and let sit at least ten minutes (IMPORTANT: this allows the flax seeds to release whatever it is they release into the milk, which binds the cookies into a nice chewy consistency. If they don't sit long enough, you'll have disappointingly flat cookies).

In a large bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Whisk together oil, sugar and vanilla. Add the flax mixture, and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients in a few additions, being careful not to overmix. Add chocolate chips.

Form the dough into cookies, either by forming 1" balls with your hands, or scooping them out with a tiny ice cream scoop. Place on a cookie sheet (no need to grease), leaving 1" between cookies. Bake 10 minutes -- no longer! Let set on the sheets for 5 minutes, then move to a wire rack or plate to cook completely.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Yeast-Raised Whole Wheat Waffles

I have an inner core of thriftiness that can make me something of a killjoy. Yes, it helps in our personal home economics, when I can add a handful of something-or-other from our garden to a can from the pantry, and turn out a passable meal. But it backfires when we go out to eat. I'll try to enjoy our meal, both the food and the occasion, but inside I'm thinking: I'm paying good money for this? I could make this at home! Easily! Needless to say, remarks like this don't really enhance the quality of an evening.

This problem comes on especially strong at brunch. Every now and then we get a particularly interesting breakfast confection, or a greasy plate that seems like manna to our hung-over stomaches. But often, brunch is an overpriced combination of basic ingredients -- some eggs and flour -- thrown together by a line cook struggling to keep pace with a pile of orders. I could make this at home.

But while this inner broken record makes me lousy dining company, it also makes me a good breakfast cook. In an effort to avoid disappointing brunches out, I've spent a lot of time working out home-cooked options. This waffle recipe is one of the best.

These waffles are surprisingly easy. The batter is mixed up the night before, and left out on the counter. The yeast provides a light airiness, and the long fermentation gives a complex flavor. And, shh, these are actually vegan. And healthy. The ground flax provides a shot of those good omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to binding the batter. The whole wheat flour provides a nice whole-grain flavor, but thanks to the yeast, there's no heaviness. Now, those with sharp eyes may notice that I topped my serving with butter and syrup. But perhaps you're more virtuous than I am.

Yeast-Raised Whole Wheat Waffles

veganized from the Raised Waffles recipe in Marion Cunningham's The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
makes 4 8-inch round waffles (about 2 servings, depending on your waffle-eating ability)

1 1/2 cups milk alternative (or, alternatively, milk)
1/2 packet active dry yeast (1 1/8 tsp)
1/4 cup neutral oil (like canola)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup coarsely ground flax seeds (sold as "flax meal")

Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl the night before you'd like your waffles. Cover the bowl with a dish towel, and let sit on the counter at room temperature overnight. The batter will rise and fall overnight (don't worry, it will still rise in the waffle iron). In the morning, mix again. The consistency will be somewhat thicker than a standard waffle batter. Heat a waffle iron, and grease well. Pour the batter into the hot iron (about 1/2-3/4 cup batter for a standard size iron), and cook according to manufacturer's instructions.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tomato Paella & Roasted Artichokes

Several years ago, a friend of mine had shoulder surgery, and her right arm was out of commission for a few weeks. As you can imagine, eating with your non-dominant hand can be an awkward, messy affair. And so she made a sickbed request for "meals that stick to the spoon." I came up with a recipe for the occasion we called "Paellotto," a paella-risotto hybrid. Inspired by the "Rice Idiazabel" at a local tapas place, I started with traditional paella seasonings, but used arborio rice, for a more spoon-sticking variation. It was delicious, and for a while was the go-to recipe when we wanted saffron rice. Until we tried this.

I first made this dish a few years ago, for an early fall celebration dinner. The recipe was quickly passed around to friends and family, and now it's in regular tomato-season rotation at many of our households. As soon as our tomato harvest increased enough to bump it into "main dish" status (instead of "condiment," where it held steady for a few weeks), I made up a batch.

Is there anything better than rice, slick with just enough oil, and flavored saffron and tomatoes? It turns out there is: tomatoey saffron rice with smoked paprika, which mimics the muskiness of a traditional wood-fired paella. I have also added lemon wedges for a bit of sharpness, and a pinch of thyme for a slight grassy edge. Once I kept going and added capers, but honestly I like it better without.

The other nice feature of this dish is its total lack of fussiness. You can use the traditional Spanish paella rice, Bomba, if you've got it. Or you can use arborio rice, regular old sushi rice, or any short-grain white rice. You cook your aromatics, add seasonings an rice and liquid, fan your tomatoes artfully on top, and then throw the whole thing in the oven.

And for the artichokes: I love artichokes just as they are, with their delicious grassy/sweet flavor. But when you roast them in the oven, they become even better. The leaves darken to a coppery brown and curl a bit, with an amazing depth and sweetness. It reminds me of Carciofi Alla Guidia, the Roman dish where artichokes are fried whole in olive oil, without any sort of batter or breading, opening up like bronzed flowers. Artichokes meld with the traditional Spanish flavors, and as an added bonus can be roasted in the oven right along with the paella.

Oh, and reheated paella, topped with a fried egg? Best. Breakfast. Ever.

Tomato Paella
adapted from Mark Bittman's Tomato Paella, New York Times 9/5/07
serves 4-6

I used our smallish Stupice tomatoes, which melt down a bit on the top of the paella. If you use larger tomatoes, they'll fan across the top in a much more dramatic presentation. If you don't have smoked Spanish paprika, you can substitute the regular variety, but the finished dish will lack that smoky depth.

4 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 lb ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into thick wedges
salt & pepper
1 onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 large pinch saffron
1 large pinch thyme leaves
2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika (Pimenton)
2 cups short-grain white rice
1/2 cup white wine
3 1/2 cups warm water
2 Tbsp chopped basil or parsley for garnish (optional)
A chunk of idiazabel or pecorino romano cheese, for serving (optional)
lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Place the wedged tomatoes in a bowl, drizzle with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside to allow them to get juicy and delicious.

Heat a dutch oven or a 12" oven-proof skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the remaining olive oil, and the onion and garlic. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and saute until softened, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomato paste, paprika, saffron, and thyme, and stir for another minute. Add the rice, and stir for another minute, until each grain is shiny with oil.

Pour in the white wine, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes, until it's mostly absorbed. Add the water, stir until combined, and turn off the heat. Taste the liquid, and add more salt if needed.

Take the reserved tomatoes, and arrange them on top of the rice. Pour any remaining oil and tomato juice over the top. Place both the paella and the artichokes in the oven, and roast until the artichokes are turning a deep golden, and the paella has absorbed the liquid and the rice is just tender (15-25 minutes). If the paella has absorbed the liquid, but the rice is still firm, pour in a bit more water or wine, and check again in 5-10 minutes. Once the liquid is absorbed and the paella is tender, turn off the oven and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes, to continue absorbing the final amount of liquid.

Sprinkle with parsley or basil, if desired. Have cheese for grating and lemon wedges for squeezing available at the table.

Roasted Artichokes

4 large globe artichokes
1 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Cut off the tops and stems of the artichokes, and snip off the pointed tips of the leaves to avoid poking yourself during dinner. Cut each artichoke in half down the middle, and using a spoon scoop out the hairy choke, and any of the small thorn-tipped inner leaves.

Place the artichokes in a pot and simmer until just done (you can just poke the tines of a fork into the heart), about 10-15 minutes, depending on the size and age of your artichokes. Drain, toss with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and place cut-side-down in a baking pan.

Roast until the artichoke begins to darken to a coppery color in parts, and a few of the outer leaves curl.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Charred Tomato Chile Salsa

For most of us, when we think of making salsa, we think of pico de gallo. Chopped fresh tomatoes, chopped fresh cilantro, onions or scallions, maybe a fresh hot jalapeno or serrano, and then a splash of lime or vinegar to pull it all together. Perfect with tacos, or for scarfing down with chips.

But there's another kind of salsa out there: the cooked salsa. I'm not talking about the jarred stuff at the grocery store, which mostly tastes of canned tomatoes. I'm talking about the salsas served in squeeze bottles at your local taqueria. The green salsas, tangy with tomatillos. And oh, the red salsas. For a while I had no idea how these were made. You couldn't really identify individual ingredients within the smooth blend. Every now and then you saw a chile seed, or a fleck of charred something-or-other, but for the most part it was a spicy mystery.

It turns out that this class of cooked salsa is easier to make than you'd think (or than I'd thought, at any rate). You need a fruit to carry the body of the salsa, generally a tomato or tomatillo (unless you're braver than I am, and can go it with just chiles). The tomatoes/tomatillos are seared, and the chiles can also be seared too (although it tends to result in choking smoke), and maybe an onion or garlic. Everything is soaked or simmered, then pureed, with some vinegar or lime to brighten it up, and fresh herbs stirred in at the end. This post gives a great overview of the process.

For a while, I was partial to a variation from the New Vegetarian Epicure, with guajillo chiles and tomatillos. But this version, from Chow, is my new love. It's adapted from a taqueria, Papalote, in San Francisco's Mission neighborhood. I've been there, and can vouch for it: fairly standard burritos, amazing salsa. I don't know how Chow's recipe compares to the original (they had to freestyle it themselves), but it's definitely my current favorite. It's spicy from the chiles (sharp Chiles de Arbol and a richer Pasilla), but is mellowed out by pumpkin seeds, which give it a smooth body and slightly nutty flavor. The interplay of caramelized tomatoes and vinegar gives it a perfect sweet-tart balance. We've had it on top of tacos, on top of chips, and straight from a spoon. Even a chile wuss like me can't stay away.

Charred Tomato Chile Salsa
adapted from Chow's Ersatz Papalote Salsa
makes about 2 1/2 cups

Although the recipe is written for Roma tomatoes, I used the Stupice tomatoes in our garden, and it worked wonderfully. Just reduce the amount of water if you're using a juicy tomato (you can always add more later). And if you're a pumpkin seed-lover like me, resist the urge to add more to the sauce. The amount as written provides just the right amount of balance, without making it overwhelmingly nutty.

5 medium Roma tomatoes, cored and halved (or an equivalent amount of other tomatoes)
10 dried Chiles de Arbol, stemmed and seeded
1 dried Pasilla chile, stemmed and seeded
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp sugar (less, if your tomatoes are particularly sweet)
1 1/2 cups water (less, if you're using juicy non-Roma tomatoes)
2 Tbsp hulled pumpkin seeds, toasted
2-3 Tbsp white vinegar
1/4 cup minced scallions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

- Preheat your broiler. Place the tomatoes in a greased baking dish, skin side up. Char under the broiler until the skins are slightly burned, and the tomatoes have started to give up their juice a bit (this can take just a few minutes).

- Slide the tomatoes into a saucepan, along with the chiles, salt, sugar, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

-Add the vinegar, cook for another minute, then turn off the heat. Add a scoop of this mixture to a blender along with the pumpkin seeds, and puree until almost totally smooth. Add the remainder, and puree until smooth (you want the pumpkin seeds totally blended into the body of the sauce, but specks of chile and such are fine). Stir in the cilantro and scallions, and taste to adjust seasoning. Allow to chill for several hours, for the vinegar to mellow and the flavors to meld. The salsa will thicken a bit the first day, and considerably the day after (if there's any left).

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lemony Tomato Feta Cilantro Pizza

I wasn't entirely sure what to call this creation. It's almost more of a flatbread than a pizza. It's got a crust, true (in the Neapolitan style), but no lashings of red sauce, no thick top layer of mozarella. I'm open to a new name, if you've got one. Whatever it is, it's delicious.

I was initially got the idea for this pie the amazing Cheeseboard Collective, an cheesemonger/pizzeria that my Berkeley-based friends adore. Their pizzas tend to have unorthodox topping combinations, based upon the seasonal yield in Northern California. Although many sound strange (and upsetting to five-year-olds expecting pepperoni), they seldom disappoint.

Years ago I had a pizza of theirs, topped with sauce and cheese, and some of these ingredients. It was delicious, but I felt that there was a lighter, more summery pie trapped inside. I got rid of the sauce and cheese, upped the amount of chopped fresh tomatoes for moistness, and added more lemon juice and zest to tie it together. The result is reminiscent of the Minted Feta Flatbread, but more of a substantial meal, with the cilantro taking out of the Middle East, and into someplace else entirely. It's a wonderful way to use the season's fresh tomatoes, brightened up with salty cheese, sharp lemon juice, and cilantro. It's perfect with a side of brown fava beans, a salad, or just on its own.

Lemony Tomato Feta Cilantro Pizza
makes two pies

crust adapted from Jeffrey Steingarten's Neapolitan-American Pizza, although you can grab two bags of dough from the supermarket if you're tight on time


3/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups cool water
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 cups flour


scant 4 cups chopped tomatoes, drained in a colander of excess liquid
1 cup loosely-packed crumbled feta cheese
1/2 red or yellow onion, thinly sliced in half moons
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
olive oil for drizzling
1 bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
juice and zest of 1 lemon
black pepper

To make the dough:

In the bowl of a mixer, combine the yeast and water and allow to sit for a few minutes for the yeast to soften. Add salt and flour, mix with a paddle until well combined. The dough will be very moist. Mix on slow speed with a paddle attachment for a minute (this can also be done with just a wooden spoon, if needed).

Coat a clean counter with a thick layer of flour, and pour the dough out. It will drift and ooze, like a big blob. Grab the floured underside, and gently fold it over the top, covering the dough blog. Let rest 10 minutes. Divide the dough in two, shape each piece into a ball, and place each in an oiled bowl. You don't need to oil the top of the dough -- just make sure it has a nice dusting of flour. Cover tightly with plastic, and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled (aobut 3-4 hours). Move to the refrigerator, for a minimum of 1 hour, an ideal of 3, and a maximum of 24.

To make the pizza:

Preheat the oven, with a pizza stone if you have, to 500 degrees for an hour. When it's been almost an hour, prepare your toppings, and remove the dough balls from the refrigerator. Stretch the dough out to pizza size, and then place it on your pre-heated stone. Working quickly, scatter half the tomatoes over the pizzas, then half the feta, garlic and onions. Drizzle olive oil over the top. Place in the oven, and bake until the crust is browned to your liking (generally 10-15 minutes). If you have a pizza peel, you can assemble the pizza on the peel, then slide it onto the stone in the oven, avoiding the frenzied construction.

When the pizza is browned, remove from the oven. Scatter half of the cilantro over the top, half of the lemon zest, and squeeze the lemon juice evenly across. Grind some fresh pepper over it (the feta should supply enough salt, but feel free to add more if your feta isn't briny enough). Slice and enjoy. Repeat with second pizza.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

My friend's husband once left her a note in the kitchen that read: Honey, we're out of bundt cake. It became a family joke, but with a beautiful underlying assumption. That bundt cake, a particularly decadent class of dessert, can be as much of a pantry staple as eggs or milk. And that listing a hand-made treat on a slip of paper can will it into your kitchen. I used to add the word "pony" to shopping lists I found lying around the kitchen when I was young. It was a similar idea.

When I said that bundt cakes are decadent, I'm not kidding. While you can bake any batter in any pan (well, more or less), many bundt cakes are baked in their special hollow-centered form because they couldn't support their own weight in a standard pan. In the excellent food science baking book Bakewise, Shirley Corriher notes that many bundt cakes have particularly high amounts of fat and sugar, like the classic pound cake. These recipes create cakes with a moist and luscious crumb, but they're often sunken, lacking a nicely domed top. The beauty of a bundt pan is that it hides this flaw. There's no center of the cake that can sink in alarmingly, and any slight collapse will be hidden when you flip the cake to reveal its underside, nicely domed from the fancy fluted pan. Genius!

But did I say that bundt cakes were decadent? Well, yes, some are. But not this one. This cake rises nicely, showing that its fat and sugar are in healthy(-ish) proportions. It has zucchini, which we all know to be a green vegetable. And heart-healthy nuts. Why, it's practically granola! With two cups of sugar. More, if you count the frosting. Did I forget to mention the frosting?

This recipe comes from the Baker's Cafe, a cozy bakery where I worked throughout high school and college. It's where I learned most of my baking chops, and where I felt the most at home. It's also where I ate delicious cakes such as this one. Sometimes multiple slices in the course of a shift (and multiple shifts in the course of a week). Those were great days.

Chocolate Zucchini Cake

adapted from The Baker's Cafe Cookbook

The zucchini melts into the cake, providing moisture and lightness, with just enough green to make you feel virtuous. If you've got a ton of zucchini, you can sneak in a bit more, with equally delicious results. The frosting is a bit runnier than a standard cream cheese frosting, so that you can pour it thickly, lusciously, over the rounded top of the cake.

3 cups grated zucchini (I like using both the coarse and fine holes on a box grater)
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups neutral oil (like canola or soy)
1 Tbsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1 cup chopped walnuts (more for garnish, if desired)

4 oz cream cheese (1/2 cup), softened at room temperature
2 Tbsp butter, softened at room temperature
squeeze of lemon or lime juice (optional)
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup + 2 Tbsp sifted confectioner's sugar

Make Cake:

- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease and flour a 9" bundt pan.

- Set zucchini in a strainer or colander for at least half an hour to drain out the excess liquid.

- Whisk together eggs, sugar, oil and vanilla until well combined. In another bowl, sift flour with cocoa, salt and soda. Add the flour mixture to the oil mixture, folding together until just barely combined. Fold in the zucchini, breaking up any clumps, and then the nuts. Be careful not to over-mix.

- Pour batter into your prepared pan, and bake 45 minutes to an hour, or until a tester comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 20 minutes, then invert and finish cooling on a rack or plate.

- When the cake is cool, make the frosting. Using a mixer or food processor, blend together cream cheese and butter until uniform. Add the vanilla and optional citrus juice, then beat in the powdered sugar until smooth. Drizzle over the cooled cake. Garnish with additional walnuts, if desired.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Apricot Jam (and a bulk jamming primer)

Canning en masse feels so old-fashioned. Because it is, I suppose. Like the quilting bee or the barn raising, it's members of a community coming together to do something we couldn't do individually. The harvest comes on its own schedule, and we need to gather the fruit or else it falls to the slugs. Admittedly, my bulk canning results from a good deal on bulk fruit purchasing just as often as from harvesting laden trees, but the sentiment is close enough. And in the case of apricots, the gather-ye-rosebuds metaphor is pretty apt. Even though apricots are a cultivated rather than backyard fruit tree (at least in the Pacific Northwest), the season is painfully short. If you want apricot jam for the winter months, you've got to find some time in that brief window, gather your friends together, and stock up for the year. I'll admit that a stocked pantry isn't as impressive as a quilt or a barn. But again, the sentiment is the same: we can do some amazing things when we come together.

Recently I joined friends (and friends of friends) in canning 80 pounds of apricots. There's something so satisfying about canning that sheer volume of fruit. Especially apricots, so fragrant and golden. But it takes some effort. Having been the veteran of several all day jam sessions (hee!), I'm going to share some hard-learned tips on making these run as smoothly as possible:

1. Make sure you've got all the gear you need. Drag out your biggest pots, and have friends bring more if you don't have enough, especially those with nice heavy bottoms (burning jam is just so disappointing). Buy a 25 lb sack of sugar, bags of lemons, and pre-order your pectin in bulk. We found that it was easiest to have the host pick all this up (well, easiest for those of us who weren't the host). Everyone gave our host a count of their desired jam yield in advance, brought their own jars, and then paid a per-cup price for their share of the fruit, pectin, sugar and lemons.

2. Have jammers come in shifts. There are only so many burners on a stove, so many cutting boards, so much table space. And so many hours that someone wants to work. Staggering your jammers can help things move more smoothly.

3. Get things on the stove right away, with more on deck. Heating massive quantities of jam can take massive amounts of time, so start the pots going as soon as you can. We had our one main pot of jam going, and then had an "on-deck" pot on a lower heat behind it, slowly warming the fruit without any worry of scorching (or need for constant stirring). We also had bowls of sugar and pectin pre-mixed, at the ready as soon as our fruit came to a boil.

4. Write things down so that the math doesn't bite you in the butt. How much fruit was poured in that pot? Does that bowl of sugar have pectin sifted in already? Has lemon juice already been added to that apricot puree? Getting the answer wrong can suck. Especially if you have a lot of hands in the kitchen, labeling will be invaluable. You can lay a slip of paper on top of your bowls of dry ingredients, or write directly on the sides of pots and stainless steel bowls with a grease pencil. (I find writing on cookware somewhat thrilling, in a hope-mom-doesn't-catch me way.)

Apricot Jam
yields about 15 cups of jam

Although I'm loathe to write a product-specific recipe, all pectins behave differently, and have different sugar/acid requirements. I use Pomona, which gels based on a particular proportion of pectin and calcium water. Apricot kernels, the small amond-shaped seed hidden inside the pits, add a subtle bitter almond flavor to the jam (as well as a small amount of cyanide, but they tell me it's not enough to worry). It's best if the jam sits a few months for the kernel flavor to permeate, but it's fine to eat whenever.

12 cups chopped or pureed apricots (about 6 lbs raw fruit)
3/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup calcium water (see Pomona Pectin package for instruction)
6 cups sugar
3 Tbsp Pomona Pectin

- Sterilize enough jars to hold 15 cups of jam, either in a boiling water bath or your dishwasher.

- Combine the apricots, lemon juice, and calcium water in a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to ensure it doesn't scorch.

- In the meanwhile, remove the kernels from the apricot stones. Gently smash the pits with a hammer (not too hard, or you'll smush the kernels). Remove the stones, and save a few dozen of the nicest ones. Drop a couple into each sterilized jar.

- Sift together the sugar and pectin (sift well -- unsifted pectin will clump in the jam). When the apricot mixture comes to a boil, stir in the sugar/pectin mixture, and return to a boil for a few minutes. Pour the jam into sterilized jars, wipe the rims clean, top with boiled lids and finger-tightened rings, and process in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes (for pints and half-pints). Remove and let cool, and listen for that magic ping to let you know that the lid has sealed. Of course, you can test the lids later (the dimple in the center of the lid will be sucked into concavity by any jar that's properly sealed), but that satisfying sound is not to be missed. The jars will continue to set as they cool.

(many thanks to Alex for these photos -- I was a bit too sticky to be handling a camera that day)

Sunday, August 02, 2009


All cooking involves a feeling of alchemy. You take a bunch of ingredients, some heat and some water, some fancy knifework, and you end up with a whole that's far greater than the sum of its parts. When friends and loved ones are involved, you often create an experience -- a night to be remembered, or a feeling of home to draw upon. You transform raw materials into nourishment, in all senses of the word.

Making liqueurs can be one of the more dramatic examples of this. You take fruits or grains, and with some time, fermentation or infusion, create something that can last almost forever. And bring people together. In this case, I took some sunny lemons from neighboring California, drew out their oils with alcohol, and made a digestif that can sit in the basement and age for as long as we like. The flavor actually improves with time, and it can be given to friends as gifts, or uncorked whenever you'd like to cap off a lovely evening. Which is all to say that I've been drinking again.

In all fairness, I started this batch of limoncello three weeks ago. I took my own advice and joined in a bulk canning date, where several friends turned 80 lbs of Northwest apricots into a seemingly endless river of jam. We divided into teams and washed, pitted and cut the fruit, measured out sugar and pectin, juiced lemons, sterilized jars, and boiled and stirred and poured and processed until the kitchen table groaned under its load of jam. And then we did it again. The burners on the stove ran for ten hours straight. Preserving on this scale takes a lot of time, sugar, fruit and citrus. In addition to my trove of jam, I went home with an unexpected present: zest from a dozen lemons.

Limoncello is a digestif, or after-dinner liqueur, made from the zest of lemons. Traditionally it's made with a special variety of lemons grown on Italy's Amalfi coast. But the domestic version isn't too bad either. I've made batches with ordinary supermarket lemons (Eurekas), as well as Meyers from the backyards of my lucky California friends, and both are delicious. And shockingly easy.

Making limoncello involves grating the peel off of the lemons, sealing it up with some alcohol to draw out the oils, then sweetening the end product and watering it down to a drinkable consistency. The best alcohol to use is often debated: some swear by high-proof fancy vodka, some recommend the cheap stuff, while others use grain alcohol. I've used them all, and find I like the latter best. Even the nicest vodkas make a limoncello that tastes, essentially, like lemon-flavored vodka. Grain alcohol, with its crazy high proof, draws out more oils and other citrusy compounds, and the end result has the truest lemon flavor.

adapted from several Italian cookbooks by my Italian friend Alex

In general, grain alcohol produces a slightly cloudier limoncello than vodka. Also many have observed that the mixture will be further clouded if the sugar syrup is added while still warm. Some prefer a clouded digestif to a urine-clear version, so use your discretion. If you don't have a zester or microplane grater to expose the maximum lemony surface area, just peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler, and allow it a few extra weeks to infuse.

12 lemons
1 fifth (750 ml) bottle of grain alcohol
1 1/2 fifths water (about 4 1/2 cups)
1 1/3 cups sugar

Grate the zest from the lemons using a microplane grater or a zester with small holes, making sure to get only the yellow skin and none of the white pith (this can impart a bitter flavor). Place the zest and grain alcohol together in a glass jar, seal with a lid, and let sit for about three weeks. Shake occasionally. At the end of this time, the alcohol will have drawn out most of the lemon color from the shreds of peel. Pour through a strainer, pressing down to release any remaining oils, and then discard the peels.

Dissolve the sugar and water together in a pot. Mix this syrup in with your strained alcohol. Filter the combined mixture through several layers of cheesecloth, or, preferably, a coffee filter to remove any remaining impurities. Letting it sit for a month or so before sipping allows the flavors to mellow and develop, although I'm seldom that patient. Chill thoroughly in the freezer before enjoying.